Dismissal due to plaintiff's failure to set pretrial without justifiable reason

Reading A.M. No. 03-1-09-SC together with Rule 17, Section 3 and Rule 18, Section 1 of the Rules of Court accommodates the outright dismissal of a complaint upon plaintiff's failure to show justifiable reason for not setting the case for pre-trial within the period provided by the Rules. Thus, trial courts must consider the facts of each case.

The Supreme Court has allowed cases to proceed despite failure by the plaintiff to promptly move for pre-trial when it finds that "the extreme sanction of dismissal of the complaint might not be warranted:[1]
It must be stressed that even if the plaintiff fails to promptly move for pre-trial without any justifiable cause for such delay, the extreme sanction of dismissal of the complaint might not be warranted if no substantial prejudice would be caused to the defendant, and there are special and compelling reasons which would make the strict application of the rule clearly unjustified.


While "heavy pressures of work" was not considered a persuasive reason to justify the failure to set the case for pre-trial in Olave v. Mistas, however, unlike the respondents in the said case, herein respondent never failed to comply with the Rules of Court or any order of the trial court at any other time. Failing to file a motion to set the case for pre-trial was her first and only technical lapse during the entire proceedings. Neither has she manifested an evident pattern or a scheme to delay the disposition of the case nor a wanton failure to observe the mandatory requirement of the rules. Accordingly, the ends of justice and fairness would best be served if the parties are given the full opportunity to litigate their claims and the real issues involved in the case are threshed out in a full-blown trial. Besides, petitioners would not be prejudiced should the case proceed as they are not stripped of any affirmative defenses nor deprived of due process of law.

This is not to say that adherence to the Rules could be dispensed with. However, exigencies and situations might occasionally demand flexibility in their application. Indeed, on several occasions, the Court relaxed the rigid application of the rules of procedure to afford the parties opportunity to fully ventilate the merits of their cases. This is in line with the time-honored principle that cases should be decided only after giving all parties the chance to argue their causes and defenses. Technicality and procedural imperfection should thus not serve as basis of decisions.

Finally, A.M. No. 03-1-09-SC or the new Guidelines To Be Observed By Trial Court Judges And Clerks Of Court In The Conduct Of Pre-Trial And Use Of Deposition-Discovery Measures, which took effect on August 16, 2004, aims to abbreviate court proceedings, ensure prompt disposition of cases and decongest court dockets, and to further implement the pre-trial guidelines laid down in Administrative Circular No. 3-99 dated January 15, 1999. A.M. No. 03-1-09-SC states that: Within five (5) days from date of filing of the reply, the plaintiff must promptly move ex-parte that the case be set for pre-trial conference. If the plaintiff fails to file said motion within the given period, the Branch COC shall issue a notice of pre-trial.[2] As such, the clerk of court of Branch 17 of the Regional Trial Court of Malolos should issue a notice of pre-trial to the parties and set the case for pre-trial. (Emphasis supplied, citations omitted)
On the other hand, the Supreme Court has sustained dismissals due to plaintiff's fault after finding that plaintiff's failure to prosecute or comply with the rules was without justifiable reason. The Court of Appeals Decision cited Spouses Zarate v. Maybank Philippines, Inc.[3] and Eloisa Merchandising, Inc. v. Banco de Oro Universal Bank[4] on the need for vigilance in prosecuting one's case, and Regner v. Logarta[5] on the right to speedy trial.[6]

In Zarate, the trial court "dismiss[ed] the complaint for lack of interest to prosecute the case."[7] Pre-trial and presentation of evidence-in-chief were reset several times due to plaintiff spouses' and/or their counsel's failure to appear, without offering any explanation for most of their absences.[8] The High Court sustained the trial court's dismissal of the complaint after finding that "petitioners inexorably delayed the trial of the case without any justifiable reasons[.]"[9]

In Eloisa Merchandising, Inc., the case "had been at the pre-trial stage for more than two years and petitioners have not shown special circumstances or compelling reasons to convince [the Supreme Court] that the dismissal of their complaint for failure to prosecute was unjustified."[10] The case remained at pre-trial stage when A.M. No. 03-1-09-SC took effect.[11] The trial court already dismissed the complaint twice due to petitioners' non-appearance at pre-trial.[12] The Supreme Court sustained the third dismissal since "despite the trial court's leniency and admonition, petitioners continued to exhibit laxity and inattention in attending to their case."[13]

The Supreme Court discussed that "[w]hile under the present Rules, it is now the duty of the clerk of court to set the case for pre-trial if the plaintiff fails to do so within the prescribed period, this does not relieve the plaintiff of his own duty to prosecute the case diligently."[14]

Trial courts should be more proactive in ensuring the progression of cases to pre-trial considering the significance of this stage in civil actions:
Pre-trial is an answer to the clarion call for the speedy disposition of cases. Although it was discretionary under the 1940 Rules of Court, it was made mandatory under the 1964 Rules and the subsequent amendments in 1997. Hailed as "the most important procedural innovation in Anglo-Saxon justice in the nineteenth century," pre-trial seeks to achieve the following:

The possibility of an amicable settlement or of a submission to alternative modes of dispute resolution;
The simplification of the issues;
The necessity or desirability of amendments to the pleadings:
The possibility of obtaining stipulations or admissions of facts and of documents to avoid unnecessary proof;
The limitation of the number of witnesses;
The advisability of a preliminary reference of issues to a commissioner;
The propriety of rendering judgment on the pleadings, or summary judgment, or of dismissing the action should a valid ground therefor be found to exist;
The advisability or necessity of suspending the proceedings; and
Such other matters as may aid in the prompt disposition of the action.[15]

Pre-trial promotes efficiency of case proceedings by allowing the parties to stipulate on facts and admissions that no longer need proof, and to agree on key issues, among others. It protects the right to speedy trial without compromising substantive justice.

A.M. No. 03-1-09-SC upholds this purpose in requiring the Clerk of Court to issue a notice of pre-trial "[i]f the plaintiff fails to file [the] said motion [to set case for pre-trial] within the given period[.]"[16]

[1] Polanco, et al. v. Cruz, 598 Phil. 952, 959 (2009) [Per J. Ynares-Santiago, Third Division].

[2] Id. at 959-961.

[3] 498 Phil. 825 (2005) [Per J. Callejo, Sr., Second Division].

[4] G.R. No. 192716, June 13, 2012, 672 SCRA 533 [Per J. Villarama, Jr., First Division].

[5] 562 Phil. 862 (2007) [Per J. Chico-Nazario, Third Division].

[6] Rollo, pp. 40-41.

[7] Spouses Zarate v. Maybank Philippines, Inc., 498 Phil. 825, 831 (2005) [Per J. Callejo, Sr., Second Division].

[8] Id. at 830 and 838-839.

[9] Id. at 840.

[10] Eloisa Merchandising, Inc. v. Banco de Oro Universal Bank, G.R. No. 192716, June 13, 2012, 672 SCRA 533, 547 [Per J. Villarama. Jr., First Division].

[11] Id. at 545.

[12] Id. at 546.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 547.

[15] The Philippine American Life & General Insurance Company v. Enario, 645 Phil. 166, 176 (2010) [Per J. Perez, First Division], citing Balatico Vda. De Agatep v. Rodriguez, et al., 619 Phil. 632, 642-643 (2009) [Per J. Peralta, Third Division], quoting Tiu v. Middleton, 369 Phil. 829, 835 (1999) [Per J. Panganiban, Third Division].

[16] A.M. No. 03-1-09-SC (2004), sec. I, A, 1, last paragraph.